‘AS-level plea: Cambridge is in cloud cuckoo land’

The Telegraph, 07/11/14, Cambridge's plea to schools asking teachers to retain AS-level exams is impractical, unscholarly and sixth formers will suffer, says HMC member Andrew Halls, head master of King's College School, Wimbledon.

As reported this week, Cambridge University’s head of admissions, Mike Sewell, has written to all schools to tell them, “We strongly encourage potential [Cambridge] applicants to take AS level examinations in at least three, and preferably four, subjects, whether reformed or not, at the end of Year 12.”

I encourage as many bright boys and girls as I can to apply to Cambridge. It is without a doubt one of the very best universities in the world. But this advice strikes me as both impractical and unscholarly.

The background to the Cambridge letter is this: since curriculum reform in the year 2000, A levels have been divided into modules. As we all now know, this led to an anti-academic retake culture, grade inflation, and the atomisation of learning into a series of self-enclosed and increasingly trivial units.

A few years ago, Michael Gove abolished January modules. Candidates have, since then, sat AS exams in the summer of the lower sixth and then “banked” these marks, counting for 50 per cent of their full A level at the end of the upper sixth.

In a staggered change, from 2015 and 2016, depending on subjects studied, these summer modules contributing towards a final A level result will also disappear.

All new A levels will, by 2016, be entirely linear. It will be possible to sit an AS in the subject you will take for A level, and use it as a guide, but all the material you have studied will have to be learned again, and tested again, in the terminal A level exams at the end of the upper sixth.

Mike Sewell’s letter is effectively asking schools to bring their two-year linear course in every A level subject to a juddering halt in the early summer term of the lower sixth. If we do what they suggest, then weeks of valuable teaching will once again be lost as schools nervously focus on preparing for wholly unnecessary AS exams in the very subjects the pupils will be taking all over again a year later.

They will not even, as before, be able to “bank” topics and marks, and at least have the sense in the upper sixth of moving on to new territory. Instead, Cambridge says all sixth formers should sit two different public exams, a year apart, on exactly the same topics – one at the end of the lower sixth, whose main function appears to be to give comfort to Cambridge that schools are telling the truth about candidates’ abilities, and then all over again at the end of the upper sixth.

Of course schools set internal exams at the end of each year; so perhaps university dons fondly imagine schools will simply use the new stand-alone AS exams as mid-course tests marked by someone else. What’s not to like about that?

Well – what’s not to like is that it is patent, solid-gold, cloud-cuckoo-land wishful thinking to believe for a moment that any school will treat public exams as informal “see how you go” tests.

The very fact that Cambridge is already stating how important the AS exams will be to their admissions process guarantees this. Instead, all new learning, all sense of academic growth and evolution, will come to a dead stop as exam revision classes begin, study leave sprawls across the summer term, and the laborious public exam timetable spreads each student’s three or four AS exams across weeks of precious teaching time.

And all for an exam that then has no impact at all on the final A level. It is a perfect example of the worst of both worlds – all the wonky time-wasting of a modular exam system, with none of its benefits.

Cambridge have argued elsewhere, and perhaps rightly, that (old-style) AS modules helped state school pupils gain more places at Cambridge because their AS results gave them the confidence to apply – but this will not be the case if the costs of sitting unnecessary AS exams make them the exclusive preserve of private school pupils.

For a moment, let’s assume the Cambridge advice is not depressingly anti-academic and unscholarly, and that head teachers really like the idea of making pupils sit stand-alone public exams on the same topics at the end of both the lower and the upper sixth. How does it really work?

It works like this. Every linear syllabus is planned to allow teachers to develop in their pupils a detailed knowledge and a love of each subject over two years in the sixth form.

The new AS exams, we are told, are designed to be “co-teachable” with the full A level. So you would start the lower sixth with a set of pupils most of whom plan to take the full two-year A level, and others who will probably stop at the end of the lower sixth with an AS.

That appears to be perfectly sensible. But it means that the likely majority – those who intend to take the subject all the way through – must have their course modelled to suit the smaller and perhaps rather less enthusiastic group who will drop the subject at the end of the year.

This may not sound especially serious, but it instantly takes away one of the great advantages of a linear syllabus: the freedom to plan the course to the pupils’ and teachers’ strengths and appetites.

In fairness, Mike Sewell’s suggestion does have one advantage – I mean for candidates, not for Cambridge University. It allows pupils and their teachers to take stock after the release of the stand-alone AS results, and choose which of their subjects to continue with to A level.

If they drop a subject, they will at least have an AS result in it – although it may not always be one they are very proud of. There are many schools who for this reason will, understandably, follow the Cambridge model.

However, there are plenty of others who feel strongly that for this small advantage far too much of real merit in a freely-taught linear course is lost. King’s is one of those schools: we have no intention of asking our pupils to sit AS exams in subjects the vast majority will take again a year later.

Our internal assessments and school mocks will enable us to provide students with good advice as to how many (and which) subjects to pursue in the upper sixth – as was the case for decades in the past. I happen to like public exams, but even I can see that not everything needs a certificate to be of value.

Cambridge have lost sight of why most good sixth formers are spending thousands of hours in lessons and at home. It is not to help out university admissions offices, but because they like their lessons and their subjects, and they want to gain real proficiency in them.

Making them sit a public exam on the same material twice, purely to provide universities with an objective benchmark, is the very antithesis of what schools – let alone Cambridge University – should be recommending to bright sixth formers.

Cambridge University is asking schools to join them in believing that the new, completely different, AS exams are really just like the AS modules of the past fifteen years. They’re not. What’s more, if they mirror the history of the last stand-alone AS exams, briefly introduced in the mid-1980s, they will die an unlamented death within five years.

Read the full article © The Telegraph (subscription may be required)